Virginia is the first state in the country to have a Secretary of Technology. Virginia is also one of the most progressive states in the country in terms of understanding what the proper role is for my job. I focus on three areas. I promote Virginia’s technology economy. We elevate the quality of IT services inside the government, buying technology for government workers. Third, I am responsible for promoting or, as I like to call it, instilling public sector excellence. This means that we find a way to leverage technology in all other areas of government. For example, we see how we can use technology to advance health care, education, transportation, energy policy and so forth—looking for places where technology can make improvements.
What prompted the addition of this position?
The position was created around time of internet boom [in the late 90s] Virginia’s role in the internet boom is the largest story untold. Everyone was talking about Silicon Valley, but what they didn’t talk about was that there was more internet traffic running through Northern Virginia than the rest of the world! There was a disconnect between what Virginia was doing and what the rest of the world knew. Promoting Virginia’s technology economy is a way to remind people that Virginia is a place where we do all this cool stuff!
What is a typical day like for you?
It’s hard to give you a typical day because Virginia has a part-time legislature, like the Congress in federal government. The state congress is in session from January until March. So what I’m doing now is not what life was like in January or February. At the beginning of the year, I spent 60 to 70 percent of my time getting to know the General Assembly and visiting with members of congress. Twenty percent of my time was spent on high priority projects, with ten percent talking to constituents and giving speeches. Today, I’m probably spending one third of my time implementing IT reforms—how we do basic operational IT in the government. Another one third is spent thinking about public sector excellence. And the last third involves speeches promoting Virginia’s technology economy.
Is being Secretary of Technology a little bit of a stretch from your past experience?
No! Not at all. In my professional life when I was managing director of Advisory Board Company, one of the first things I did was write the first study on the impact technology would have on health care… I studied health policy at Johns Hopkins University undergrad, and health policy at Kennedy [School of Business] at Harvard University for grad school….As [Advisory Board Company] grew, I helped launch our first software-based business. My primary understanding is from customer need, not bits and bites— and it translates into my work now.
How do you deal with the challenges of your job?
Challenges? Every day! There are probably three lessons I learned—some are challenges, some are observations—it’s incredible to me regardless of political party that most political figures are passionate about public service. This is a positive observation. You know their hearts are in making the Commonwealth better—and I absolutely believe that. Number two, the private sector is probably better about accountability than public sector. In the private sector, if I put forward a project and it doesn’t work, it’s my fault. Projects in the Commonwealth get an A for strategy and vision and a B, C or sometimes even a D for execution. Third, the biggest challenge I face is time…I feel this incredible sense of urgency because I know I only have four years to make a big difference…There are so many places where we might make a difference that my biggest struggle is to maintain focus on the three things I can work aggressively on to generate impact.
You are the young guy in Kaine’s cabinet, it seems, at only 33. Have you found that to be a strike against you when working with others?
I view it as an asset—I tend to view everything as an asset…There’s a lot of passion, energy and excitement that people see in me and attribute to my youth. They see I’m young and hungry and work with 150%.
What would you recommend to other South Asians who want to get into politics?
Three things—first, set a strategy and commit to it. My strategy was work in the private sector and make partner, then pursue public service. So set a goal, stick to it. I had been tempted to do something in the previous administration if I had an opportunity, but I decided I wanted to make partner [at Advisory Board Company]. I set my strategy and stayed with it. Second, volunteer on boards and commissions. [Former Virginia] Governor, [Mark] Warner, was kind enough to put me on three commissions, so I could observe government and see it in action. Finally, invest in a network, whether it’s the Indian American Executive Community, or even a university alumni network. Find a network to plug into—it’s incredible to me how great my networks have been, in just the few months I have been in office.
You’re answering all my questions in threes—is this a secret?!
In a complex world, I find it a lot easier to organize my thoughts in threes. A beginning, a middle and an end. I could say a million random things to you, but I like to give three short categories—this is a good tip. If you were to ask about what separates the top tier from mediocrity, it’s the ability to synthesize ideas in an analytical frame.
You are quite well-known in the South Asian community. You were former president of TiE DC, one of Washington's largest business networking organizations. What’s your secret to networking?
One—can I give you three? (laughs) Here’s how I think about networking. One, you must always carry the spirit of generosity—if I have the capacity to help you, I will, without the presupposition that it will turn into anything. In the best relationships I have formed, I had no idea how I was forming them! It’s the extra phone call on someone’s behalf, or the email you send, or the interview you offer. Two, I believe very deeply about the force of ideas. In networking, if you acknowledge that ideas matter, when you talk to people, you will look at them to identify the brilliant ideas that are embedded in your mind. I don’t care if you’re a basket weaver or a philosopher, often getting to know someone’s force of ideas in one area can naturally translate into another. Three, this is how I approach life: the notion of “true north.” True north means there is objectively a right answer. To find that answer, you must ask the right questions. If I’m looking for a job, I could think, “I want to get a job with a particular firm. I’m going to network and get that job.” But, if I’m looking for true north, I want to know what the best job for me is. I ask this question: Where should I be? Even if I want to work in a particular place, my true north might take me somewhere else.
Here’s an example of all three. Most of my friends at the Kennedy School only hung out with the other policy people. What was interesting about the Indian American community was that we created—without knowing it—the most cross-fertilized network you could imagine. Because while we’re hanging out at the bar, drinking and talking about things, we’d talk about health care—and the doctor, lawyer, business man and policy expert all naturally have these conversations with different perspectives. Meanwhile, the policy wonks just hung out with each other…If you can all get together, you can build a great network.
Your wife lives in Arlington, Virginia and you work in Richmond, which is about a two-hour drive. How do you make that work?
My wife has a wonderful job, and I don’t want to ask her to give it up for me. So she continues to work [there]. I have an apartment in Richmond, and I try to go home once if not twice a week. So, three or four nights a week I’m here in Richmond, two or three in Arlington. Our weekends are sacred—just for us.
Do you think you might want any little Chopras running around?
Yeah! Of course! Logistics might make it challenging, but we’d love to have kids. None yet—but we’re still reasonably young.
Do you see yourself in politics forever or will you go back to the private sector? What’s next on the radar for you?
Well, you know, they always say, you gotta maximize the opportunities in front of you. Right now I’m on the path for four years with Governor Kaine. I think about life in terms of Hindu philosophy. There are four stages in life: educate yourself, provide for your family, give to public service and become one with God. The challenge for me now is knowing if I have crossed over into the third, or if I’m bouncing back and forth between second and third. But I’m in the public sector because of luck—my company went public, so I had a boost that only happens when you’re lucky. I don’t want to go back to the private sector—but I’m a Democrat, so I wouldn’t be in if a Republican won.
Roopika Risam is the Managing Editor of ABCDlady.
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